Ancient warfare in Gothenburg, 2016

It’s been a hectic few weeks. On Monday 27 June, I travelled to Gothenburg, Sweden, and managed to catch a very severe cold on my layover in Copenhagen that has continued to plague me to this day. In any event, I managed to hook up with some friends in Gothenburg and ate some Swedish meatballs before this year’s International Ancient Warfare Conference kicked off on Tuesday.

This was the fourth time that the conference has been organized in just as many years, and the third time in a row that I’ve attended it. The conference was spread out across three days, with parallel sessions on every day. As far as conferences go, I think it’s fairly sizeable without being too big. The people attending the conference – speakers and listeners alike – have so far proven to be among the friendliest academics that you’ll ever meet.

Most of the speakers tend to be PhD students or people who recently finished their PhDs, with a few graduate students and more seasoned researchers sprinkled in between. As a result, the participants tend to be fairly young – I’d guess the average age being somewhere mid- to late twenties – which perhaps helps explain the energy and enthusiasm that eminates from the conference as a whole. If you ever have a chance to attend the conference, I heartily recommend that you do so.

Day 1: kickoff

Tuesday started with a very interesting lecture by Jorit Wintjes (University of Würzburg) entitled ‘The command and control conundrum, or why we believe we understand ancient naval operations, but don’t.’ Wintjes showed the problems that arise when we try to figure out what ancient naval operations were really like: what was the spacing between ships, how did command function, and so forth.

The problems are similar to what we face when we try to reconstruct land battles, except that the scale at sea is generally even bigger. Wintjes suggested that ancient commanders were able to get signals out to change tactics midway through a battle, but I and several others were sceptical about this, believing instead that ancient battles were planned beforehand, with little control exercised by commanders once battle had started.

I next attended the lecture by Margaretha Kramer (Indiana University) entitled ‘Of ships and shields: the Dipylon shield and the Mycenaean galley at the Bronze Age–Early Iron Age transition.’ This was somewhat of a disappointment to me. Kramer’s ideas – that shields and ships were linked and part of a contemporary lifestyle – were too limited, covering ground that Paul Treherne did years ago (Journal of European Archaeology 3.1, published in 1995), and that I myself expanded upon in my PhD thesis and Henchmen of Ares. And yes, I am fully aware that writing this has earned me even more ‘conference bingo points’ (for those in the know).

Moving swiftly on, Yasmina Benferhat (University of Lorraine) next spoke on Roman sources dealing with sea blockades, which was interesting, but a little hard too follow, seeing as the lecture was essentially an academic article read out loud, complete with a handout offering very detailed quotes from ancient sources in the original languages. The naval theme was continued by Amy Down (University of Exeter), who talked about ‘Rhodes as a significant power in the Early Hellenistic period.’ This was a very interesting paper, combining as it did literary accounts with archaeological evidence (ship sheds), and I hope that Amy will find the funding necessary to do a PhD in this field.

I switched rooms to attend the paper delivered by Jeroen Wijnendaele (Ghent University), entitled ‘Kingship in the Late Antique West (ca. 400–500 CE): ethnic leaders, territorial rulers, or military managers?’ Delivered with quite some gusto and humour, Jeroen managed to insert four – if I recall correctly – Brexit jokes, much to the chagrin of those who are directly affected by the outcome of the recent UK referendum. Knowing little abnout the subject itself, I asked a few questions concerning the connection between Late Antique kingship and religion, which Jeroen answered with patience and insight.

I stuck around to listen to Kyle Shi-Cong Fan Chaing’s ‘Virgins and the Persians: sexual violence against the captured Roman women in the Romano-Persian Wars.’ This was an interesting talk, especially since there the treatment of women offers something of a throughline across antiquity. Already Herodotus framed the Persian Wars as the result of generations’ worth of tit-for-tat raiding of women between ‘Europeans’ (e.g. Greeks) and ‘Asians’ (e.g. Trojans, Phoenicians).

Returning to the other room, I listened to Aimee Schofield (University of Leicester)’s paper, ‘Women waging war: women’s roles in Classical Greek siege warfare.’ Aimee is an expert in ancient Greek catapults and has read the writings of Aeneas Tacticus in detail. It was fun hearing the various tasks that women were supposed to perform during sieges, from outright fighting against the enemy to smuggling notes hidden in earrings.

Day 2: all Greek, all the time

Ioannis Georganas gave today’s keynote lecture with the title, ‘How militaristic were Aegean Bronze Age societies?’ His talk focused on recent research, such as that conducted by Barry Molloy, which has shown conclusively – if such proof was needed – that the Minoans were as warlike as any other ancient people, even if they did not express it in such forthright manner as the Mycenaeans did, for example. It offered a good overview of the role of warfare in the Bronze-Age Aegean.

The rest of the day I was confined to room D411 at the university where I chaired most of session 4. The first lecture was delivered by Fernando Echeverría (Computense University, Madrid) on ‘Epistrateia; rethinking Greek siege warfare in the pre-artillery era.’ Fernando argued that contrary to most modern commentators, ancient Greek siege warfare should be regarded as part of land warfare. This was an interesting talk, and Fernando put forward a number of issues that would be touched upon again in the Greek siege warfare panel this afternoon.

First, though, was Birgitta Leppänen Sjöberg (Uppsala University) with ‘Wars and gendered voices’. Like Aimee’s paper the day before, this focused on the role of women in warfare and especially in how movement for women became limited during warfare. She also touched upon changes across time, as women in the Iliad appeared to enjoy more freedom of movement in times of peace than women did in Classical Athens.

After lunch, the next four lectures were part of a panel that I had organized on ancient Greek siege warfare. The first lecture was delivered by Roel Konijnendijk (Institute of Historical Research, London): ‘Playing dice with the city at stake.’ Roel’s main point was that while modern commentators focus on pitched battles, these were actually the least desirable types of confrontations, since the outcome depended as much on luck as anything else. If possible, ancient Greeks preferred to wage wars where they would enjoy some kind of advantage, including hiding behind the safety of a city’s walls.

Next up was Owen Rees (Manchester Metropolitan University) with ‘Resurrecting the Classical Greek siege.’ Like Fernando and Roel, Owen argued that ancient Greek siege warfare deserves a better reputation in modern scholarship. Unlike what most people assume, the ancient Greeks were actually quite adept at besieging cities, even before the invention of machines such as the catapult. If you want to learn more, check out Owen’s article on Greek siege warfare in Ancient Warfare issue X.3.

After the coffee break, Jeroen Wijnendaele took over as chair as I had to deliver the next two papers (despite my cold and slight fever!). Matthew Lloydd sadly couldn’t attend the conference and so I – as one of the few archaeologists present who also happened to know about this particular subject – read his paper, ‘Walls comes tumbling down! The destruction of settlements in early Greece.’ Matt’s point is that the destruction of settlements – a phenomenon that appears in the eighth century BC – is a significant development in Greek social and military history.

My own paper was entitled ‘Fear and fortifications in ancient Greece’. While inspired by my blog post with the same title, it was really an excuse to show that fortifications are important beyond their strictly military aspects. I pointed out that fortifications are among the earliest and largest public building projects undertaken by ancient communities and that they are not only symbolic of, but actually constituent to, e.g. the creation of communal identities. Essentially, this lecture was a plea to examine fortifications as more than just things to hide behind.

To wrap up, a reception was organized in the small Museum of Antiquities that was located not far from the building where the conference was organized. Wine flowed freely – since it’s fairly expensive in Sweden! – and it was a good opportunity to catch up with people, including a few whose lectures I was unfortunately not able to attend.

Day 3: something of everything

The third and final day featured an odd mix of papers, essentially offering something for everyone. There was no keynote lecture today, but I think Cezary Kucewicz (University College London) was an excellent choice to start off the day. His lecture was entitled ‘The rise of the Greek citizen army or the real “hoplite revolution”’. Cezary discussed archaeological and epigraphical evidence to offer a much more nuanced view of the so-called ‘hoplite revolution’.

I next attended Wawrzyniec Miścicki (Jagiellonian University in Krakow)’s paper, ‘Hoplite warfare in the city of images: representations of the phalanx in Archaic Greek iconography.’ This paper was a bit confused in places, making use of rather overcomplicated theory to show that supposed depictions of ‘phalanx warfare’ on ancient Greek pottery tell us more about the preconceived notions of modern authors than that they reflect historical situations in ancient Greece.

Switching rooms, I next listened to Alessandro Brambilla (Università degli studi di Roma)’s ‘How to shape a federal army: variety of methods in the historical and socio-political frame.’ Alessandro argued that most modern commentators have focused on ancient Greek poleis. In this paper, he tried to show the varied mechanisms by which federal armies – such as those of the Boeotians and the Thessalians – were organized, and that federations were just as varied and interesting as poleis.

Tine Scheijnen (Ghent University), as one of the conference’s few Classicists, delivered a paper entitled, ‘Pictures of death in ancient Greek epic.’ This was a talk laced with readings of poetry, ancient and modern, drawing parallels between images of death, especially with regards to flowers and other plants (e.g. Homer’s simile in which the generations of men are compared to leaves).

After lunch, I listened to Stephen O’Connor (California State University, Fullerton)’s ‘Military rates of pay and food prices in the Classical Greek world.’ In modern scholarship, there is an assumption that military pay rates kept in step with local or expected food prices, especially concerning grain. Stephen, however, demonstrated that this wasn’t the case at all: military pay was largely determined by what someone thought mercenaries and soldiers were worth, and pay was increased whenever a leader needed to muster more men than his rival.

Jesse Obert (University of California, Berkeley), who’s contributed to Ancient Warfare magazine, next gave a lecture on ‘The role of attendants in Classical Greek combat.’ This was an interesting talk, in which Jesse argued that attendants would fight alongside their masters in battle as skirmishers or archers, forming a ‘cloud’ of light-armed men between the core heavy infantry and the camp. I’m not wholly convinced by this hypothesis, but it’s definitely an intriguing idea that deserves to be examined in further detail.

After the coffee break, I listened to Hilary Becker (University of Mississippi), who talked about ‘Inscribed Etruscan helmets: mapping function and meaning for the Etruscan soldier.’ Some Etruscan helmets feature numerals inscribed along the edge, the meaning of which isn’t particularly clear. Do these numbers refer to workshops, to army units, to particular leaders, or something else? No answers were offered, but it was intriguing none the less.

I then switched rooms to attend Anna Busetto’s lecture on ‘Strategies and functions of military emulation between the Greek and Roman worlds’ (though the final title was a little different). Anna showed that throughout the ancient world, it was important for leaders to be seen giving a good example, as this in turn inspired their men to excel. At least, this is what the written records claim. A good example would be Julius Caesar, who – acorrding to his own writings! – supposedly wore a bright red cloak so that his soldiers could see him as he rushed about in the front lines, fighting the enemy.

Closing remarks

The end of the conference is always a little bittersweet. It’s a good place to catch up with old friends and meet some new ones, but most of the people here I get to see in person only once a year. (And matters weren’t made any easier with my cold, which caused me to miss what I’ve heard was a pretty remarkable evening out on Wednesday!)

Next year, the conference will again be organized in Aberystwyth and I hope to attend it again, though I will probably not be presenting any fresh research, since I haven’t really been keeping up with that on account of my actual job as editor! I’m thinking of talking about Ancient Warfare magazine or, more broadly, on presenting ancient warfare to a wide audience.

After the conference, I travelled by train to Stockholm to spend a few days there with my girlfriend. We visited quite a few museums, all of which were excellent, and I will have something to write about one or two of them in particular. So if you like my ramblings on museums, you’ll have something to look forward to, I hope. 

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